David M. Zimmer
PATERSON — Four community activists earned plaudits for their impact on Passaic County this week.
Gustavo Orales, Johanna Cisneros, Maritza Davila and the staff of the Hispanic Star’s New Jersey received recognition from county commissioners for their efforts to help others in the community. All members of the Hispanic, Latino and Latinx communities, the group runs a gamut of betterment programs touching everyone from small business owners to the homeless.
Nationwide, about one in five U.S. residents are Hispanic, according to 2020 Census results. In Passaic County, the rate rises to more than two in five. In the county seat of Paterson, it’s nearly three in five.
Davila, a lifelong Paterson resident and city council president, was the first Hispanic woman to serve as a councilwoman-at-large for the city. For 28 years, she has served as assistant director or admissions for Passaic County Community College and worked with a variety of professional, political and volunteer groups.
Davila said recognition was not her goal, rather it’s what she knows and loves. It’s “what I was taught to do,” she said.
County Commissioner Assad Akhter said the recognition from the county, one of many awards on her resume, was long overdue. “Regardless of title, regardless of whether she is quote-unquote authority or not, she’s going to try to help people,” Akhter said.
Cisneros, a Passaic resident and longtime volunteer at Goodwill, helps operate the food pantry at the Greater Passaic Clifton Community Center.
Passaic Mayor Hector Lora said she has a remarkable dedication to the homeless population. She helps homeless residents secure mailboxes, find critical documents and connect with estranged family members. She has also found permanent housing for eight people who were living on the streets, Lora said.
“She literally got them off the streets, connected with services and into permanent housing,” Lora said.
Cisneros said she could not do what she does without resources from partner organizations in Passaic County.
“We’re all a team,” she said. “It takes a village to raise a child. A homeless individual is just like a child being raised to be on their own.”
Orales, a native of Mexico City, moved to Clifton in 2015. In 2019, he became the pantry manager at St. Peter’s Haven. The nonprofit founded in 1986 today supports 500 families and 1,300 people in the Clifton area. Throughout the pandemic, the pantry never closed its doors, said Lauren Murphy, a Clifton councilwoman and member of the nonprofit’s board.
“He contracted COVID because he was right out there on the frontlines,” Murphy said.
In addition to providing households with grocery staples, St. Peter’s Haven offers short-term housing and social services for homeless and at-risk families in and around Clifton.
“The doors of St. Peter’s Haven are always open,” Orales said. “We provide food and provide a shelter for anyone in need.”
Hispanic Star New Jersey Hub
The only organization honored by the county, Hispanic Star focuses on supporting Hispanic small business owners. In recent months, the group has relayed information about pandemic-related grants, programs and self-protection equipment to area residents and business owners to help them adjust to pandemic and better the local communities.
Adriana Rozo-Angulo, a native of Colombia who now lives in North Jersey, leads the New Jersey hub, which is currently raising money to “adopt” businesses to cover rent payments.
“Once we have the resources, we just need the connections to be able to help,” she said.
All four of Tuesday’s honorees were recognized during Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. Originally a week-long celebration prior to 1988, the heritage month retains the original start date to commemorate the national independence day of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.